rave, generous, of a free and open nature, Othello the Moor had won high honour in the state of Venice, for, although dark in colouring and of an alien race, he was one of her most renowned generals, and time after time had carried her arms to victory. When, therefore, alarming news reached Venice that the Turkish hordes were again threatening to invade some of her most valued territories, it was to the Moorish warrior Othello that the Venetian senators turned at once to avert the threatened danger.
Othello’s frank, valiant nature had won him many friends, but close at hand, where he little suspected it, was one subtle and dangerous [Pg 361]enemy. Iago, one of his under-officers, hated him with a deadly venom. Iago was a brave soldier, but a man of utterly unscrupulous character. He had been with Othello through several campaigns, and when a chance for promotion came had hoped, through high personal influence, to obtain the envied position of Othello’s lieutenant. In his own opinion, Iago thoroughly merited this post, but when suit was made to Othello he evaded the petitioners, and finally put an end to their hopes by saying that he had already chosen his officer.
“And what was he?” demanded Iago disdainfully. “Forsooth, a great arithmetician—one Cassio, a Florentine that never set a squadron in the field, nor knows the division of a battle more than a spinster, unless by bookish theory; mere prattle without practice is all his soldiership. But he, in good time, must be his lieutenant, and I—God bless the mark!—his Moorship’s ancient.”
Burning for revenge, Iago, instead of declining the inferior position of “ancient,” or ensign-bearer, accepted it, but only to serve his own purpose. “In following Othello, I follow but myself,” he declared. “Heaven is my judge, not for love and duty, but seeming so, for my peculiar end.” For Iago prided himself on the skill with which he could conceal his real feelings, and under a mask of the bluntest honesty he began to work out a scheme of diabolical cunning.
Desdemona, the gentle daughter of a statesman, dearly loved to hear these thrilling stories, and was quite fascinated by the valorous soldier who had passed through such strange experiences. Hastily despatching her household affairs, she would come again and again to listen greedily to Othello, often weeping for pity when she heard of some distressful stroke he had suffered in his youth. His story being done, she would sigh, and swear, “in faith, ’twas strange—’twas passing strange; ’twas pitiful—’twas wondrous pitiful!” She wished she had not heard it, and yet she wished that heaven had made her such a man; and she bade Othello, if he had a friend who loved her, that he would but teach him how to tell his story, and that would woo her. Upon this hint, Othello spoke. Desdemona loved him for the dangers he had passed, and Othello loved Desdemona because she pitied him.
But, as Desdemona said, she saw Othello’s visage in his mind, and the valour and nobility of his nature made her forget the darkness of his complexion. Knowing her lord father's disposition, , and fearing that he would never give his consent, Desdemona quietly left her home one night without consulting him, and was married to Othello.
Now was Iago’s opportunity. Finding out by some means what was taking place, he informed a rejected suitor of Desdemona’s called Roderigo, a brainless aristocratic youth, who quickly became his henchman...
The next question to decide was where Desdemona should stay during her husband’s absence. She begged so earnestly to be allowed to accompany him to the war that Othello joined his voice to hers, and the Duke gave them leave to settle the matter as they chose. Othello was obliged to start that very night, and Desdemona was to follow later under the escort of his officer, “honest Iago,” to whose care Othello especially committed her, and whose wife Emilia he begged might attend on her.
If Othello had but known it, “honest Iago” at that very moment [Pg 366]was already weaving his plans of villainy, and was sneering inwardly at his General’s open and trustful nature, which made him so easy to be deceived. The sweetest revenge which occurred to Iago was to bring discord between Othello and the beautiful young wife whom he loved so devotedly. Iago therefore determined to set cunningly to work to implant a feeling of jealousy in Othello’s mind. Like many warm-hearted and affectionate people, Othello was extremely passionate and impulsive. Once his feelings were aroused, he rushed forward blindly in the direction in which a clever villain might lure him, and being so absolutely truthful and candid himself, he was utterly unsuspicious of falsehood in others.
Iago’s weapon was not far to seek, and he had, moreover, the satisfaction of feeling that he would enjoy a double revenge, for it was Cassio, Othello’s new lieutenant, on whom he fixed as a fitting tool. Cassio was young, handsome, attractive, a general favourite, especially with women, where his graceful manners always won him favour. He was already greatly liked by Desdemona, for when Othello came to woo her, Cassio was his frequent companion, and often carried messages between them. What, then, more natural than that a young girl like Desdemona should presently grow tired of her elderly and war-beaten husband, and turn for amusement to this charming young gallant? Such, at least, was Iago’s reasoning, and such was the poison which he intended to pour into the ear of the guileless Othello.[Pg 367]
On the way to Cyprus a terrible tempest sprang up, which scattered Othello’s convoy, and drove his own ship out of its course, so that, after all, Desdemona got to the island before her husband. Cassio, Othello’s lieutenant, had already arrived, and had been sounding the praises of his General’s wife to the islanders, and when news came that Desdemona’s ship had also safely reached port, he was ready with a rapturous greeting for the young bride.
“O, behold, the riches of the ship is come on shore!” he cried, as Desdemona approached, with Emilia, Iago, Roderigo, and their attendants. “Hail to thee, lady! The grace of heaven, before, behind thee, and on every hand, enwheel thee round!”
“I thank thee, valiant Cassio,” replied Desdemona. “What tidings can you tell me of my lord?”
Cassio answered that Othello was not yet arrived, and for anything he knew he was well, and would be there shortly; and even as he spoke, the guns on the citadel thundered a greeting to a friendly sail.
Like a spider who has woven its web, Iago watched his victims; he gloated over the idle chatter between Cassio and Desdemona, and marked, as they laughed and talked together, how the young man smiled and bowed, and often kissed his fingers with an air of gallantry.
“Ay, smile upon her, do,” he sneered to himself; “if such tricks as these strip you out of your lieutenancy, it had been better you had not kissed your three fingers so oft.... Very good; well kissed! an excellent courtesy! ’tis so, indeed!”[Pg 368]
So he went on, taking malicious pleasure in the young man’s little affected airs, which would the more readily lend colour to any suggestions Iago chose to bring against him.
Othello, meanwhile, had landed. His joy at again meeting his wife was so intense that he could scarcely express it.
“If it were possible now to die, ’twere now to be most happy,” he exclaimed, for he feared that unknown fate would never again hold in store for him another moment of such absolute content. “Come, let us to the castle. News, friends!” he went on, turning to the others. “Our wars are done, the Turks are drowned. How does my old acquaintance of this isle?... Come, Desdemona, once more, well met at Cyprus!”
In honour of the good tidings of the destruction of the Turkish fleet, and of the marriage of their new Governor, Othello, a public rejoicing was proclaimed in Cyprus, and during the space of six hours the whole island was to be given up to feasting and revelry.
Cassio was appointed to watch that evening as Captain of the Guard, and Iago saw here an excellent opportunity to take the first step in his scheme of revenge, by bringing some disgrace on the young lieutenant. He knew that a very little wine, such as would have no effect on another man, made Cassio excited and quarrelsome. He [Pg 369]determined to lure him on to drink more than was good for him, after which Roderigo was to find some occasion to irritate Cassio, either by speaking too loud, or sneering at his discipline, or by any other means he pleased. Cassio, being rash, and very sudden in anger, would probably strike Roderigo, which, if possible, he was to be provoked into doing, for out of this Iago would incite the islanders to mutiny, and get Cassio dismissed from his post.
When, therefore, Cassio entered the hall of the castle to take up his duties for the night, Iago met him with a great appearance of friendliness, and cordially pressed him to join in the entertainment he had provided for some guests,—Montano, the former Governor of Cyprus, and some other gentlemen, who would fain drink a measure to the health of Othello. Knowing his own weakness, Cassio at first refused.
“Not tonight, good Iago,” he said. “I have very poor and unhappy brains for drinking; I could well wish courtesy would invent some other custom of entertainment.”
“O, they are our friends! But one cup!” pleaded Iago. “I will drink it for you.”
Cassio answered that he had drunk only one cup that night, and even of that the wine was diluted, and yet he already felt the effects. He was unfortunate in this peculiarity, and dared not task his weakness with any more.
“What, man! ’Tis a night of revels; the gallants desire it,” urged the tempter.
“Where are they?” asked Cassio, his resolution beginning to falter.[Pg 370]
“Here, at the door; I pray you, call them in.”
“I’ll do it, but it mislikes me,” said Cassio, and he reluctantly went in search of Iago’s guests. When he presently returned with three or four noisy gallants who had themselves been feasting too lavishly, they had already persuaded him to drink another cup with them.
Iago now did his best to lure them on by calling for more wine, and trolling out a jovial song:
“And let me the canakin clink, clink;And let me the canakin clink;A soldier’s a man;A life’s but a span;Why then let a soldier drink-drink!”
“An excellent song!” pronounced Cassio, whereupon Iago sang another, which he found even “more exquisite” than the first. So merrily went the minutes that it was not until much later that the new lieutenant remembered his neglected duties, by which time his senses were quite confused by what he had drunk.[Pg 371]
When he left, Iago took occasion to spread a bad impression of him by saying what a pity it was that such a good soldier should be spoilt by the persistent habit of drink—in fact, that he never went sober to bed. This, of course, was an absolute falsehood, but the gentlemen of Cyprus believed what Iago said. Montano remarked it was a pity Othello were not told of it; perhaps he did not know, or perhaps his good nature prized the virtue in Cassio, and overlooked the evil. It was a great pity that the noble Moor should hazard such an important place as second in command to one with such an incurable fault. It would be right to say so to Othello.
“Not I, for this fair island,” said the hypocritical Iago. “I love Cassio well, and would do much to cure him of this, evil.—But hark! What noise?” for there was a cry without: “Help! help!”
The next instant Cassio entered violently, driving Roderigo in front of him and beating him. Montano interfered to protect Roderigo, whereupon Cassio turned on him, and both drawing their weapons, Montano was presently wounded. Iago, meanwhile, had sent Roderigo to run and cry a mutiny, and make as much disturbance as possible, while Iago himself had the alarum-bell set pealing, and shouted noisily in all directions, contriving largely to increase the confusion, under pretence of restoring order.
Othello was speedily on the scene, and with prompt decision at once silenced the uproar. Then he asked for an explanation, which no one seemed willing to give.
“Honest Iago, that lookest dead with grieving, speak: who began this? On thy love, I charge thee.”[Pg 372]
Iago mumbled some confused excuses, which were certainly not intended to deceive the General. Cassio, on being appealed to, now completely sobered by the shock, answered simply, “I pray you, pardon me; I cannot speak.” Montano declared that he was too much injured to say anything; Othello’s officer, Iago, could tell him everything; he was not conscious of having done or said anything amiss.
Othello now began to lose patience, and knowing the serious danger of such a disturbance in the present unsettled condition of the island, he curtly commanded Iago to let him know how the brawl began, and who set it on.
With feigned reluctance, but with much secret satisfaction, Iago gave an account of what had happened, taking care to heighten his own ignorance of the affair, and ostentatiously pretending to try to shield Cassio from blame.
Othello’s sentence was short and sharp.
“I know, Iago, thy honesty and love do mince this matter, making it light to Cassio.—Cassio, I love thee, but never more be officer of mine.”
When Othello and the others had retired, Iago, seeing Cassio standing as if dazed, went up and asked him if he were hurt.
“Ay, past all surgery,” was the mournful response.
“Marry, Heaven forbid!” said Iago, startled.
“Reputation, reputation, reputation!” groaned Cassio. “O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself. My reputation, Iago, my reputation!”[Pg 373]
“As I am an honest man, I thought you had received some bodily wound,” scoffed Iago. “There is more sense in that than in ‘reputation.’” And he tried to cheer up Cassio by telling him there were ways in which he could recover the General’s favour,—only sue to him, and he would soon be won round.
“I would rather sue to be despised than deceive so good a commander with so slight, so drunken, so indiscreet an officer,” returned the contrite Cassio.
“You or any man may be drunk once in his life, man,” urged Iago. “I’ll tell you what you shall do.” And he went on to say that the General’s wife was now the General, meaning by this that Othello would do anything that Desdemona wanted. Iago advised Cassio to appeal to Desdemona. She was so good and kind that she always did more than she was asked. If Desdemona pleaded with Othello on his behalf, Iago was ready to wager anything that Cassio would soon be in higher favour than ever.
Cassio was grateful to Iago for his counsel, which the latter protested he only offered in love and honest kindness, and Cassio resolved early the next morning to beseech Desdemona to undertake his cause.
Iago was delighted to find his plot working so smoothly. He knew that the more earnestly Desdemona appealed on behalf of Cassio, the more fuel there would be to feed Othello’s jealousy.
Thus, out of the gentle lady’s own sweetness and goodness Iago made the net that was to enmesh them all.[Pg 374]
In accordance with his resolve, Cassio appealed the next morning to Desdemona, who with all the warmth of her affectionate nature undertook his defence, and merrily promised to give her husband no peace until he had pardoned the offender. Othello approaching at that moment, Desdemona begged Cassio to remain and hear her speak, but the young lieutenant was too much ashamed to face his General, and left in some haste. Iago seized this chance to implant the first seeds of suspicion in Othello, by exclaiming, as if without thinking, “Ha! I like not that.”
“What dost thou say?” asked Othello.
“Nothing, my lord; or if—I know not what,” said Iago, craftily pretending as if he wished to withdraw his words.
“Was not that Cassio parted from my wife?”
“Cassio, my lord!” with an air of great surprise. “No, sure, I cannot think it, that he would steal away so guilty-like, seeing you coming.”
“I do believe it was he,” persisted Othello.
“How now, my lord; I have been talking with a suitor here, a man that languishes in your displeasure,” said Desdemona, coming to meet her husband.
“Who is it you mean?”
“Why, your lieutenant, Cassio,” answered Desdemona; and then, with simple eloquence, she began to plead for the culprit. But Iago’s remark had ruffled Othello’s temper.
“Went he hence now?” he asked abruptly.[Pg 375]
“Ay, truly; so humbled that he hath left part of his grief with me, to suffer with him. Good love, call him back.”
“Not now, sweet Desdemona; some other time.”
“But shall it be shortly?”
“The sooner, sweet, because of you,” said Othello, softening a little.
“Shall it be tonight at supper?”
“No, not tonight.”
“Tomorrow dinner, then?”
“I shall not dine at home; I meet the captains at the citadel.”
“Why, then, tomorrow night; or Tuesday morning; or Tuesday noon, or night; or Wednesday morning. I prithee, name the time, but let it not exceed three days,” coaxed Desdemona with playful persistency. And she went on pleading for Cassio with such winning sweetness that Othello could resist no longer.
“Prithee, no more; let him come when he will. I can deny thee nothing,” he exclaimed; and when Desdemona withdrew, happy at the promise she had extorted, he cried, with a sudden return to all his trust and affection, “Perdition catch my soul, but I do love thee! And when I love thee not, chaos is come again.”
All might now have been well if Iago had not been at hand to pour his poison into Othello’s ear. With diabolical cunning—a hint suggested here, a half-retracted phrase there, an affectation of honesty that seemed always checking itself for fear of speaking too openly—Iago contrived to fix the basest suspicions on Cassio. With subtle craft he made it appear as though everything he said were [Pg 376]reluctantly dragged from him, and, as on the night before, while making a great parade of trying to shield Cassio, he succeeded in blackening him with unfounded calumny.
Not content with this, he next, in a serpent-like manner, began to insinuate suspicions against Desdemona, declaring that he would not on any account let Othello know what was in his thought, and beseeching him in the most meaning tone to beware of jealousy. Those who were jealous, he said, lived a life of torture—doating, yet doubting; mistrusting, yet loving.
“Good Heaven! the souls of all my tribe defend me from jealousy!” he ended fervently.
“Why—why is this?” demanded Othello, firing up, just as Iago had hoped he would do. “Do you think I would lead a life of jealousy, to follow still the changes of the moon with fresh suspicions? No; to be once in doubt is once to be resolved.... No, Iago; I’ll see before I doubt; when I doubt, prove; and on the proof there is no more but this—away at once with love, and—jealousy.”
Iago remarked he was glad of that, for now he could show the love and duty he bore Othello more frankly. Then he advised Othello to watch his wife closely, and note her behaviour with Cassio, afterwards pretending to draw back, and urging Othello to go no further into the matter, but to leave it to time. So, having succeeded in making Othello thoroughly unhappy, Iago took his leave.
“This fellow’s of exceeding honesty, and knows all qualities of human dealings most skilfully,” thought the poor deceived Othello; and then, as Desdemona herself came in sight, innocence and candour [Pg 377]enthroned on her brow, for a moment all mistrust melted. “If she be false, O, then heaven mocks itself! I’ll not believe it.”
Desdemona had come to remind her husband that dinner was served, and that the islanders invited as guests were waiting. Othello, who had been greatly upset by his conversation with Iago, replied in such a faint voice that Desdemona asked if he were ill.
“I have a pain upon my forehead here,” answered Othello.
“That’s with watching. Let me but bind it hard; within this hour it will be well,” said Desdemona, holding out a handkerchief beautifully embroidered with strawberries.
“Your napkin is too little,” said Othello, putting the handkerchief from him, where it dropped, unheeded, to the ground. “Let it alone. Come, I’ll go in with you.”
“I am very sorry that you are not well,” said Desdemona with the simple wistfulness of a child.
When they had gone, the handkerchief was picked up by Emilia, wife of Iago, who was very glad to find it, for her husband had often begged her to steal it for him. But Desdemona so loved the token—for it was the first remembrance Othello had given her, and he had begged her never to part with it—that she always kept it carefully about her, to kiss and talk to.
“I’ll have the work taken out, and give it to Iago,” said Emilia to herself. “What he will do with it Heaven knows, not I; I only do it to please his whim.”
But Emilia was already half repenting of what she had done, before she gave the handkerchief to Iago, and she might possibly have refused [Pg 378]to part with it at all if Iago had not put an end to the matter by cunningly snatching it from her with one hand, while he pretended to caress her with the other. Directly it was safely in his possession he dropped the amiable tone he had assumed, and harshly ordered away his wife.
Iago was delighted to have got this handkerchief, for he meant to make a wicked use of it. He was going to lose it in Cassio’s lodgings, and let the young lieutenant find it, when he would take care that Othello should think it was a present from Desdemona. Iago knew that “Trifles light as air are to the jealous confirmation strong as proofs of holy writ,” and seeing Othello approach, he marked with fiendish satisfaction the cloud of gloom and trouble that rested on his brow.
“Not poppy, nor mandragora, nor all the drowsy syrups of the world, shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep which thou owned yesterday,” he said to himself maliciously.
Othello’s peace of mind was, indeed, gone for ever, and all joy and interest in life were over.
“Oh, now, for ever, farewell the tranquil mind, farewell content! Farewell the plumed troop, and the big wars that make ambition virtue! O, farewell! Farewell the neighing steed, and the shrill trump, the spirit-stirring drum, the ear-piercing fife, the royal banner, and all quality, pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war! Farewell! Othello’s occupation’s gone.”
“Is it possible, my lord?” murmured Iago, with feigned sympathy.
Othello turned on him with sudden fury, and gripped him by the throat.[Pg 379]
“Villain, be sure you prove my love untrue! Be sure of it!” he cried, shaking him violently.
Iago pretended to be deeply aggrieved by Othello’s distrust, and said if necessary he could bring proofs of what he said.
“Tell me but this,” he went on: “have you not sometimes seen a handkerchief, spotted with strawberries, in your wife’s hand?”
“I gave her such a one; it was my first gift.”[Pg 380]
Iago said he did not know about that, but such a handkerchief he had seen in Cassio’s possession that very day.
Naturally, after that, Othello could not fail to believe that Desdemona had given away his cherished gift to Cassio. He took the first opportunity to ask her for it, when, of course, she was unable to produce it. She had already been greatly distressed at the loss of her treasure, and now was so alarmed by the violent way in which Othello kept demanding it, that she dared not own it was lost, and only said she had it not about her at that moment.
“That is a fault,” said Othello, frowning darkly. “That handkerchief was given to my mother by an Egyptian. She was a charmer, and could almost read the thoughts of people. She told her, while she kept it, it would make her amiable, and her husband would love her; but if she lost it, or made a gift of it, her husband would get to loathe her. She, dying, gave it me, and bade me, when my fate would have me marry, to give it to my wife. I did so; and take heed of it! Hold it most precious; to lose it or give it away were such calamity as nothing else could match.”
“Is it possible?” faltered Desdemona.
“’Tis true; there’s magic in the web of it: a sibyl, who numbered in the world two hundred years, sewed the work; the worms were hallowed that spun the silk, and it was dyed in mummy, which the skilful conserved of maidens’ hearts.”
“Indeed! Is it true?” said Desdemona, getting more and more alarmed.[Pg 381]
“Most true. Therefore look to it well,” said Othello in a threatening manner.
Desdemona still persisted that the handkerchief was not lost, and remembering her promise to Cassio, she most unwisely chose this ill-starred moment again to urge her suit. Her innocent good-nature was the final stroke to Othello’s jealous wrath, and harshly repeating, “The handkerchief! the handkerchief!” he strode away in ungovernable fury.
Worked up to madness by the diabolical arts of Iago, he saw in his young wife’s apparent simplicity and candour nothing but the most clever deceit, and he determined to punish her supposed insincerity in the most terrible manner.
Though Othello had come to the terrible conclusion that Desdemona must die, he could not prevent his thoughts dwelling again and again on all the charm and loveliness of his dear young wife. This did not suit Iago’s purpose, for he was afraid lest Othello should relent before his revenge was accomplished. So he did his utmost in every way to incite Othello still more against Desdemona. He cunningly reminded him of Brabantio’s parting words, and said if Desdemona had deceived her father in concealing her affection for Othello, why should she not equally deceive her husband in concealing her affection for someone else?
“She shall not live—no, my heart is turned to stone; I strike it, [Pg 382]and it hurts my hand,” said Othello. Then, “O, the world hath not a sweeter creature!”
“Nay, that’s not your way,” said Iago, ill-pleased.
“I do but say what she is,” returned Othello. “So delicate with her needle; an admirable musician—O, she will sing the savageness out of a bear; of so high and plenteous wit and invention——”
“She’s the worse for all this,” said Iago.
“O, a thousand, thousand times,” agreed Othello; then he added wistfully: “And, then, of so gentle a condition!”
“Ay, too gentle,” sneered Iago.
“Nay, that’s certain;—but, yet, the pity of it, Iago! O, Iago, the pity of it, Iago!”
But one might better have appealed for compassion to a tiger in sight of his prey. Iago knew nothing of pity. He had only one aim in view—to gratify his revenge. If Othello would kill Desdemona, he said, he would undertake Cassio.
Emilia, Iago’s wife, was a sharp-tongued, outspoken woman, devoted to her young mistress, and when she saw how jealous and violent Othello was becoming, she did not scruple to tell him plainly that he was utterly wrong in his distrust. But Othello, urged on by Iago’s cunning, was now past all reason. By this time he was firmly convinced that Desdemona’s simple sweetness of manner was nothing but the most skilful hypocrisy, and that it was his duty to put her out of the world, so that she should betray no more people.
When he spoke to his wife that day after his interview with Iago, his words were so strange and menacing that Desdemona was quite frightened.[Pg 383]
“Upon my knees, what doth your speech import?” she cried piteously. “I understand a fury in your words, but not the words.”
Othello answered with a torrent of angry accusations, which utterly bewildered Desdemona, and then he abruptly left her, while Emilia vainly tried to soothe and comfort her. This good woman was not slow to express her indignation at Othello’s shameful behaviour, and loudly announced her opinion that he was being deceived by “some base notorious knave, some scurvy fellow!”
“Oh, heaven, that thou would’st make such people known, and put in every honest hand a whip to lash the rascals naked through the world, even from the east to the west!” she cried, with flashing eyes.
This was not very pleasant hearing for Iago, who was standing by, and he harshly told Emilia she was a fool, and bade her be silent. Then, when Desdemona appealed to him, asking what she should do to win her lord again, Iago pretended to think it was only a little ill-temper on Othello’s part, that business of the State had offended him, and consequently he was out of humour with Desdemona.
There was some colour for this suggestion, for a special commission had just arrived from Venice, commanding Othello to return home, and deputing Cassio as Governor of Cyprus in his place.
Iago saw that, if he wanted to dispose of Cassio, there was no time to be lost, for Iago himself would be obliged to leave the island in Othello’s suite. He therefore contrived to incite his feeble-minded tool Roderigo to set upon Cassio in the dark that very night and murder him. The attempt, however, was not successful. Roderigo only [Pg 386]managed to wound Cassio, and was himself badly injured in return. Some passers-by—the messengers from Venice—hearing groans in the street, stopped to give help, but it was too dark to distinguish the sufferers. The next person to arrive on the scene was Iago himself, with a light, and coming across the wounded Roderigo, and fearing he would betray his share in the plot, he treacherously stabbed him to death. Cassio was then carefully conveyed away for his wounds to be dressed.
That night, when Desdemona was preparing for bed, a strange melancholy seemed to take possession of her. Emilia, who was in attendance, tried to divert her mind by getting her to join in a little idle talk, but Desdemona’s thoughts were running on sad themes.
“My mother had a maid called Barbara,” she said musingly. “She was in love, and he she loved proved mad, and did forsake her. She had a song of ‘willow’: an old thing it was, but it expressed her fortune, and she died singing it; that song tonight will not go from my mind.”
And presently, as Emilia helped her to disrobe, Desdemona began singing in a sweet, plaintive key:
“The poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree,Sing all a green willow!Her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee,Sing willow, willow, willow;The fresh streams ran by her, and murmured her moans,Sing willow, willow, willow;Her salt tears fell from her, and softened the stones;—Sing willow, willow, willow.
“Sing all a green willow must be my garland;Let nobody blame him, his scorn I approve.
“Nay, that’s not next. Hark! Who is it that knocks?”[Pg 387]
“It’s the wind,” said Emilia.
Desdemona listened for a moment, then went on with her song.
“I called my love false love; but what said he then?Sing willow, willow, willow;”
Desdemona’s voice faltered and stopped. Emilia’s duties were done, and, bidding her good-night, Desdemona let her depart, and presently closed her sorrowful eyes in sleep.
Now had come the moment that Othello had chosen for his dark deed. As he drew near and saw his beautiful young wife lying in all the calm repose of innocent slumber, for an instant his soul melted with pity and love, and, bending over her, he kissed her tenderly. But once more he hardened his heart by thinking of the cause that had led him to decide on such an act, and a fresh wave of jealous fury suddenly taking possession of him, he seized the pillows, and held them over Desdemona until life seemed extinct.
There came a furious knocking at the door. Emilia’s voice was heard outside, demanding admittance. Othello paused to consider.
“What’s best to do? If she come in, she’ll sure speak to my wife. My wife! my wife! What wife? I have no wife. O, insupportable! O, heavy hour!”
And Othello with a heavy groan hid his face in his hands.
Again came the knocking.
“I do beseech you that I may speak with you, O good my lord.”[Pg 388]
Othello drew the curtains of the bed, and unlocked the door. Emilia, in great excitement, had come to bring the news of Roderigo’s death. As she was speaking, a strange sort of moan caught her attention. She knew her lady’s voice, and, rushing to the bed, tore aside the curtains.
“Help! help, ho! Help! O lady, speak again! Sweet Desdemona! O sweet mistress, speak!”
“A guiltless death I die,” murmured Desdemona.
“O, who hath done this deed?”
“Nobody; I myself. Farewell! Commend me to my kind lord. O, farewell!” And with a little sigh the gentle spirit passed away.
Othello immediately declared that Desdemona had spoken falsely; it was he who had killed her. Emilia turned on him with bitterest rage and contempt, whereupon he began to explain his reasons for what he had done, saying that it was Iago who had revealed everything to him. Emilia could scarcely believe such a thing. She shouted lustily to rouse the alarm, and when, among others, Iago himself hurried in, she taxed him with what Othello had said.
“I told him what I thought, and told no more than what he found himself was apt and true,” said Iago, brazenly.
“You told a lie, an odious, damned lie; upon my soul a lie, a wicked lie,” [Pg 389]cried the distracted Emilia, and it was vain for Iago to try to silence his wife; before everyone she proclaimed him for the villain he was.
Alas, poor Othello, he began to see he had been tricked. But one point he still clung to—the handkerchief. Desdemona had certainly given away his cherished gift to Cassio.
“O, thou dull Moor!” cried Emilia. “The handkerchief thou speakest of, I found by chance and gave my husband, for often with solemn earnestness he begged of me to steal it.... She give it Cassio? No, alas! I found it, and I gave it to my husband.”
“Thou liest!” said Iago.
“By heaven, I do not—I do not, gentlemen!”
Furious against his wife, Iago had already tried once to stab her, but she had evaded him, and the other men in the room had protected her. He now made another attempt, which was more successful, and Emilia fell to the ground.
“O, lay me by my mistress’s side!” she begged.
And there, a few minutes later, she died, with Desdemona’s song of “Willow, willow, willow” on her lips, and protesting with her dying breath the innocence of her dear lady.
Now, indeed, the end had come for Othello, and all the anguish of unavailing remorse racked his soul.
“O, Desdemona, Desdemona! Dead!” his heart-broken wail rang through the room.
But it was all in vain now—vain his agony of love and sorrow; vain his pleading; vain his scalding tears; vain the bitter scorn with which he lashed his guilty spirit.[Pg 390]
Cold, cold, pale and still, lay his beautiful young wife, her ears deaf to all voices of earth, and frozen on her silent lips the smile with which she had died.
Othello’s power and command were taken away, and Cassio ruled in Cyprus. But little cared Othello for this; all worldly ambition was over. As the gentlemen and officers were about to leave the chamber of death, taking Iago with them as their prisoner, Othello, with a dignified gesture, stayed them.
“Soft you; a word or two before you go. I have done the State some service, and they know it. No more of that. I pray you in your letters, when you shall relate these unlucky deeds, speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate, nor set down aught in malice. Then you must speak of one that loved not wisely but too well; of one not easily jealous, but being wrought, perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand, like the base Judean, threw a pearl away richer than all his tribe.... Set you down this; and say besides, that in Aleppo once, where a malignant and a turbaned Turk beat a Venetian and traduced the State, I took by the throat the circumcised dog, and smote him—thus.” And at the last word Othello plunged a dagger into his heart.
With failing strength he dragged his steps to the bed, and fell on the dead body of Desdemona.
“I kissed thee ere I killed thee,” came his dying whisper. “No way but this: killing myself, to die upon a kiss.”
Retelling by Mary Macleod
Illustrations by Gordon Browne